theater review

In Swing State, Bleak Politics in the Tall Grass

Mary Beth Fisher and Bubba Weiler in Swing State.
Mary Beth Fisher and Bubba Weiler in Swing State. Photo: Liz Lauren

Rebecca Gilman sees a lot of metaphors in the prairie, an ecosystem that may seem unruly and unproductive at first glance but follows its own delicate laws and maintains a network of life-sustaining biological relationships. In her play Swing State, Peg (Mary Beth Fisher), a widow in her 60s, has dedicated herself to caring for 40 acres of natural prairie around her farmhouse in rural Wisconsin, encroached on from all sides by cultivated farmland, full of chemicals that seep into the soil and choke Peg’s naturally occurring grasses, kill the insects that thrive there, and in turn, starve out the birds and other animals. The prairie’s the natural order of things; the farmland, human intervention. Or the prairie’s the rare communal space, and the farmland is capitalism. Or, if you take a look at the political angle of that title, the prairie is whatever bit of civic unity there’s left in America, and the farmland is the division and hatred encroaching from all sides.

Another thing you might want to be like a prairie is a play itself, though Swing State doesn’t quite achieve that. In her play, Gilman lets the thematic interpretations multiply like those wild grasses while limiting the acreage of her plot. Coming to New York after an acclaimed run in Chicago with its cast from the Goodman Theatre intact, Swing State provides an effective, direct, though limited and realist, take on our moment. It’s good: acted well, competently directed by Robert Falls, building over the course of a tense and ominous single act and exploding in a climax, but never conjuring the strange wildness that would make it great. You can tell where everything was planted here.

We’re in the early fall of 2021, and Peg, a former teacher and guidance counselor, is carrying on as best she can in her farmhouse after the recent death of her husband. Her only regular visitor is Ryan (Bubba Weiler), an ex-convict in his 20s in recovery whom she looks out for by giving odd jobs around her house. Early on, Peg announces her plans to deed the prairie to a wildlife conservation group and home to Ryan after her death, but then a few farm tools and an old rifle are stolen from her shed. The unforgiving fire-and-brimstone local sheriff, Kris (Kirsten Fitzgerald), who also happens to be a relative of the farmers surrounding Peg, suspects Ryan and leads an investigation, aided by her more conciliatory protégée, Dani (Anne E. Thompson), also a former student of Peg’s. These people, like the animals in the ecosystem around them, are stuck in a hostile environment, and they start lashing out at each other to survive.

Peg is a role that Gilman wrote with Fisher in mind, and Fisher approaches it with a chilled certainty. In her first scene, she’s alone making zucchini bread onstage in the middle of a tchotchke-filled orange-and-brown 1970ish kitchen and living room, designed by Todd Rosenthal, that projects a certain fussy, liberal-bleeding-heart-on-the-plains vibe (“NO TV!” Gilman notes in her script). Peg has total ecological collapse on the mind and delivers monologues about the state of the land around her—which insects have died, which birds and reptiles might follow—in speeches that Fisher delivers in a just-the-facts manner that make their outlook seem all the more apocalyptic. She’s warm, especially across from Weiler’s tight-wound Ryan and Thompson’s sweetly anxious Dani, but also firm and bleak. Her plan to give the land to the trust involves making sure it’s protected in perpetuity, “or until the world ends. So like, another fifteen years.”

Peg’s a fascinating character, especially for this moment: Someone who believes in and has dedicated herself to community right until she’s stopped believing it can still exist—exactly the kind of person who might be most wounded by having social connections severed by a pandemic. The trouble is, Gilman gives us too much of her despair too quickly: The play builds to the other characters’ realizing the extent of Peg’s depression, but we see it in the first scene, just in the way Fisher holds a knife as she’s chopping walnuts. That keeps Swing State in structural stasis, holding Peg in one emotional position until everyone else catches up to her. Too much of the play is occupied with catching us up, often in gratuitous asides in which the characters circle back to histories they both know—such as Peg’s relationship with her dead husband, or the details of Ryan’s incarceration—just for the sake of the audience.

The production, as a result, presses against its guardrails. Falls often directs the actors to sit at a kitchen table for long conversations, which makes the performances pinched and exaggerated, as if trying to compensate for their limited physical range. Often, the characters announce they’ve suddenly remembered they need to reveal something to one other. Weiler tends to overemphasize Ryan’s nerves and overplay his breakdowns, while Thompson portrays Dani nearly shrinking into the background. The little bits of business, such as when we see Fisher carefully extracting seeds from a wildflower, go a long way toward breaking up the talky monotony. Gilman can be funny, too, in a suitably midwestern dark style—there’s a good, grim thread about Dani’s using Peg’s lessons about being a guidance counselor while acting as a police interrogator—but she’s let too much humor get leached out of this soil. More texture, whether of humor or any other kind of human strangeness, would help complicate the relatively straightforward political analogy going on. With the play’s title in mind, Peg and Kris become  stand-ins for red and blue perspectives, fighting for the souls of the purple next generation of Ryan and Dani. Gilman ends up aiming for a left-centrist middle ground—I struggled with a scene that implies that Dani could remain a cop, but change the system by being good—which might go down more easily if we could see the characters as people rather than archetypes.

Once that stolen rifle reappears, Gilman arrives at a climax that is brutal but also clearly forecast and limited, and it lands like a hit with a rubber mallet. I felt the tragedy and kicked reflexively, but I didn’t absorb it emotionally. There’s a meta-tragedy, maybe, in the fact that the same divisiveness and defensiveness that Peg decries within the play has made Gilman’s writing schematic and careful. Swing State anticipates its interpretations and makes sure to underline its points, but all that careful hedging is to its detriment. If only something less cultivated could grow here.

Swing State is at the Minetta Lane Theatre.

In Swing State, Bleak Politics in the Tall Grass